Starting early February, a mobile planetarium full of astronomers from Radboud University will tour every Namibian school in the next five years. It’s an outreach program meant to get Namibian students and teachers excited about astronomy, in hopes that some will join a project known as the African Millimeter Telescope, or AMT someday as scientists and engineers.
Backes says potential private sponsors of the AMT project, including corporations and charities, love the idea that their donations could support advanced, self-sustaining development in Africa, rather than simply “alleviating the pain of suffering people” without growing the economy. But so far, their zeal runs cold when they’re asked to put money on the table.
Now, Namibian officials and scientists are working hard to drum up support for the project. Lisho Mundia, director of research and innovation at Namibia’s Ministry of Higher Education, Training and Innovation, says a team of professors from Namibia’s universities are studying how the country could benefit from the AMT. The project could have spinoff benefits for infrastructure, for instance; better transportation could support existing astro-tourism activity on the mountain. And for Namibian students, ambitious about learning and discovery, the project represents unprecedented access to science.
“With any given big international project, you bring cutting-edge, world-leading
That’s the sort of enthusiasm the astronomers hope to inspire in the next generation of Namibian students. Last year, the AMT boosters got one piece of good news. In mid-2019, an international panel comprised mostly of scientists working on millimeter-wave telescopes, as well as experts from Namibia’s engineering society, told the AMT team that it had passed the preliminary design review phase and had to march toward action, says Backes. Whether the project keeps momentum boils down to economics now: “We will need some serious financial infusion to make great leaps forward,” admits Backes.
Despite his team’s challenges, Backes is cautiously optimistic. “We will try to get some site-testing equipment to the mountaintop during the first quarter of this year,” he says.
The trick will be convincing potential donors, and the world, that change can come from the skies. Namibia’s stake in astronomical research began in earnest in 2002, when several scientific institutions began operating the first H.E.S.S. telescope. Since then, scientists such as Christo Venter, a space physicist at South Africa’s North-West University, have studied pulsars (small, dense stars that send out radio waves), globular clusters (collections of stars that orbit a galactic core), and pulsar wind nebulae (interstellar dust found inside supernova remnants).
Their work has included the first-ever image of an astronomical object using high-energy gamma rays in 2004, which resolved a 100-year-old mystery about the origin of these mysterious cosmic rays. In 2016, H.E.S.S. scientists discovered that the center of our Milky Way has a “trap” containing the mightiest, and possibly fastest, cosmic rays in the galaxy. Now, the ambitions of Namibia’s astronomic community are growing. In 2017, Namibia joined nine other African countries that are working toward developing the Square Kilometer Array, the world’s largest radio telescope. Expected to be built in South Africa or Australia, the project aspires to give to the world the sharpest-ever pictures of the sky.
Backes, who is also vice-chair of the Namibia Scientific Society, also hopes to bring to fruition — and to Namibia — a project known as the African Millimeter Telescope, or AMT. In this joint endeavor by the University of Namibia and Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, scientists would bring a refurbished telescope to Namibia and use it as the missing link in a global network of radio telescopes, known collectively as the Event Horizon Telescope. The network, which observes radio sources associated with black holes, captured the first image of a black hole in April 2019.
If it happens, AMT would be the only millimeter-wave observatory on the African continent and one of a handful of facilities in the Southern Hemisphere.